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The Gekko File: P12 North #4 - Washington State

Something odd is emanating from the Palouse. Is it a football turnaround or cow excrement? Only the Gekko knows.

Mike Leach is looking to taking a big step forward in 2013.
Mike Leach is looking to taking a big step forward in 2013.

There are two types of crazy.

The first type is an irrational crazy. You see it every day. This type of crazy is inherent in people who will say or do a variety of unexpected, uninhibited or unwarranted things in situations that a sane or otherwise balanced human being would not think to say or do similar things. This form of crazy is instinctual and reactive. It is coded into certain people and exists in their very DNA. It is as inexplicable as it is natural.

The second type of crazy is more cerebral in nature. It is born from an attitude that has become so ingrained into a person over time and repition that it becomes habitual. It is the kind of crazy that leads a person to have faith in an outcome that flies in the face of all evidence and otherwise rational analysis of any given situation. This kind of crazy is born out of a series of choices and decisions that build up over a long period of time until they evolve into near maniacal behavior that may seem nutso to the outside observer but, to the maniac, is completely rational.

It is not often that you find both types of crazy in the same place.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Pullman, Washington.

Mike Leach is certifiably crazy in the purest "first form" definition. Whether it be monologues on how drinking too much coffee makes him have to pee too much and affects his game planning (true story - as told on Sirius Radio's CFB Playbook) to analyses on why writing a book on pirates is a much greater commitment than getting married, Mike Leach has the market cornered on the first type of crazy. In addition to being a brilliant football coach, he is an entertainer of the highest order and, like so many other brilliant entertainers and story tellers, he is grade A first-form crazy.

Mike Leach's crazy exists in the context of the mania that sweeps over Pullman residents and WSU students/grads this time every year. These maniacs are WSU fans and, no matter how badly they get embarrassed, distressed and beaten down in any given year, they collectively pick themselves up by the bootstraps and come back for more. Moreover, they enthusiastically opt-in for more punishment knowing full well that their hearts are going to be broken but hopeful that the next go around will be a little better than the last. Every once in a while, they strike gold and the crazy gets perpetuated. It is serial. It is permanent. It defines the fanatic.

Both types of crazy in the same small town. Is this year that the crazies get their due? Could this be the proverbial "turning of the corner" for a program that seems to have been in rebuilding mode for most of the last decade? Let's open the Gekko File on Washington State for 2013 and see. I'm almost afraid to look.

The Gekko File Accountability: What I Said in 2012?

I came into 2012 like a lot of other Pac 12 fans - somewhat nervous about the impact that Mike Leach would have on a team that Paul Wulff had already made dangerous in the passing game and on a team that featured pretty competent pieces such as Jeff Tuel, Marquess Wilson, Travis Long and Deone Bucannon. Here is what I said:

However, what we don't know about WSU is what makes picking them any higher than fifth difficult. Question 1 - can that porous O-Line improve year over year? ... Question 2 - do they have the size and depth on the Defensive front seven to hang for 12 games?... Question 3 - can they actually establish a run game?...

Even though I think Leach is a huge upgrade over Wulff and that this team is eminently more dangerous than last season, the combination of lack of depth, less-than-ideal health, and unfortunate schedule make this one more season in which the Cougs finish with four maybe five wins and miss bowl eligibility.

I was close, but the path for the Cougs was a little more difficult than even I had forecasted. Read on.

2012 Recap

The hiring of Mike Leach just days after having jettisoned the once favored son, Paul Wulff, sent Coug Fans into a tizzy. Here was Bill Moos, now flush with P12 cash, making a bold statement to the fan base as he executed with flawless precision a coup that had been planned since sometime in the middle of the 2012 season. Who could blame Coug Fans for being both ecstatic and hopeful? Wulff had started to tune up the engine and now some high octane fuel was being added to the mix. The Cougs were ready to explode.

And then they traveled to BYU in Week 1.

Mike Leach was introduced to the notion of "Cougin' It" in his very first game on the WSU sideline. In what was supposed to be the explosive introduction of Leach's WSU Air Raid to the nation (via a Thursday night ESPN broadcast), the Cougs flat out stunk. They failed to score an offensive touchdown for the entire game on their way to getting blown out by the other Cougars by a score of 30-6. As he is prone to do, Leach made some pretty blunt and honest comments about his quarterback play - at halftime! - and, in doing so, set the tone early in the season for the ensuing, injury-fueled and never-ending QB battle that would play out between Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday.

The season rebounded in the first few weeks following the Provo debacle. The Cougs ripped off two wins over Eastern Washington and UNLV. However, neither of the wins were as handily accomplished as Coug Fans would have liked to have seen and everybody in the Pac 12 could sense that there was blood in the water in the Palouse. As the Cougs opened up Pac 12 play - now with Connor Halliday starting (due to a Tuel injury), Coug Fans were wondering if Leach could get things on track.

Clearly, he could not.

Their P12 opener was against Colorardo in Pullman. With Halliday at the helm, the Cougs were able to move the ball well, in particular through the air. However, the Buffs showed that the Coug defense was not anywhere where it needed to be and seemed to answer WSU with every score. The game concluded in typical WSU fashion when the Cougs, who had claimed a 34-28 lead on a Andrew Furney FG with just over 3 minutes to play, gave up a game winning drive to Jordan Webb and the Buff offense who scored the game-winning TD on a QB scramble with 9 seconds left in the game. A true Coug It moment and a death blow to optimistic Coug fans everywhere.

The Cougs would go on and get crushed by Oregon before showing some fight in a 3 game stretch against OSU, Cal and Stanford. An inexplicable 49-6 demolition at the hands of the Utes seemed to suck the remaining life out of the Cougs as they would go on and lose each of their first eight conference games before hosting the Huskies for the Apple Cup. It was a demoralizing stretch for the players, the fans and the coaching staff. Not only did it demonstrate that Leach, alone, wasn't going to be able to take the Cougs immediately to the next level, but it also showed that the significance of the rebuilding that Leach was going to have to engage in was actually much more significant than anyone had predicted. The foundation that Wulff had built, unfortunately, wasn't as decent as most in Pullman had hoped.

2012 Recap: UW @ WSU - Apple Cup

There really is no point in reliving this one as anybody that regularly visits this blog knows exactly what happened in Pullman when the Huskies fumbled away an 18 point advantage and lost to WSU in overtime. President Elson Floyd bragged afterwards that the Cougs had "kicked the Huskies out of this place" ... but that isn't exactly how it happened. The Huskies, despite a choppy offensive performance (as had been the norm all year), held a 28-10 advantage in the third quarter after Bishop Sankey had scored his second TD of the game. After that, the Defense went down the drain as the Cougs had their way in the fourth quarter, scoring a total of 18 points on 23 plays to send the game into overtime. The Huskies still had a chance to win it at the end, but Travis Coons missed a 35 yard FG as time expired. Momentum was clearly on the side of the Cougs and, this year, it was the Huskies turn to Coug It when, in the first play of overtime, Keith Price played loose with the ball and was intercepted by DL Toni Pole. Taking over at the Wash 25, the Cougs moved the ball inside the 9 and kicked a game winning FG. Coug Fans were ecstatic and rushed the field. Leach got doused with a Gatorade shower. Steve Sarkisian and his boys were sent back to Seattle having suffered the deepest of shames: a loss to the Cougs that should never have happened.

2013 Preview

Thanks to the Apple Cup surprise, the Cougs enter 2013 with a bounce in their step not unlike what they had entering 2012. That is about where the similarities end. The 2013 version of the Cougars is a completely different team than the 2012 version. Gone are some of the legacy players that defined the Wulff era including Travis Long, Tuel, Wilson and RB Carl Winston. In their places arrive a new crop of budding talent and some new players hand-picked by Leach and his veteran staff to put the fundamentals of their new defensive and offensive schemes into place. Gone are the uncertainties around who will step in and how long will it take them to learn the Leach system. Instead, there is a roster with depth unlike what we've seen at WSU in the last few years and a knowledge of the system that should lead to more consistent execution on the field. While the turnaround is by no means complete, this is a new Cougs team. One that is a lot more dangerous than the last version that we saw and one that is sure to make some trouble for the incumbents in the Pac 12 in 2013.

Curiously, my optimism around the Cougs starts not with their offense, but with their defense. When Mike Breske was pulled by Leach from Montana to Pullman, he inherited the most pathetic defensive situation in the entire country. He quickly installed a new hybrid style defense that featured a "BUCK" LB (to be occupied by Travis Long) and a more attacking style. Immediately, he got results. While you cannot say that the turnaround was as dramatic as what Justin Wilcox accomplished at Washington, there is no denying that there was progress - even if it came in fits and starts. Don't believe me? In Bill Connelly's WSU preview, he noted that the Cougs held some pretty good offenses - Stanford, UCLA and Oregon State - to well below their average offensive outputs in each of those matchups. Of course, we all saw what WSU's D did to stuff UW in the Apple Cup. And, as Bill points out, the Cougs were even effective, sort of, in shutting down Oregon's offense in the second half of that game. The point here is that there were signs of life from a defense that heretofore had been undermanned and under-developed.

In 2013, that same defense returns eight starters and, importantly, features experienced depth in most positions. In my OSU preview, I noted how uncomfortable I was with the fact that the very middle of the OSU defense was so unsettled. WSU is the opposite. The strength of the Defense is right up the middle with a star anchoring the center of each level. The most celebrated defender is S Deone Bucannon - a second team All P12 player from a season ago. Bucannon is a multi-year starter who is known for bringing the lumber. He's also a pretty heady player who has seen it all and has played tons of snaps. He heads up a secondary that is very experienced. Fellow Safety Casey Locker and CBs Damante Horton and Anthony Carpenter are all seniors who make up for a lack of pure talent with an abundance of field experience. There will be competition at all levels as the young Taylor Taliulu challenges Locker at SS and Nolan Washington and Rahmel Dockery challenge for CB time.

The Front Seven of the Cougs is also showing signs of progress. Despite the loss of Long, the LB unit is centered around the MLB where Darryl Monroe is set to break out. He's already the best player on the Cougs D despite not having the name recognition of Bucannon. Logan Mayes, a Jr, will undoubtedly take over Long's "BUCK" duties and may well be a more productive player. When Mayes is in more of a DE role, expect So LB Kache Palacio, who played in 12 games last year, to get on the field and make a name for himself. The front part of the Front Seven also features some depth in the middle of the line. Ioane Gauta is a young star in the making and he is supported by some other good looking interior linemen in Xavier Cooper (a Sophomore with a high upside) and Toni Pole. While there are some depth questions at DE, I doubt that most young Husky fans have ever seen a Cougar defensive line with this much headroom for growth. In all, this comprises the best Cougar defense that I can recall seeing in the last decade and one that can hold the line, so to speak, while the Cougar Offense gets its act together.

Of course, Coug Fans expected the offense to be the piece that came together first. But the injury to Tuel and the mid-season exit of Marquess Wilson conspired against them. Less discussed in the media, but clearly even more problematic, was the horrible Offensive Line play of the Cougs. Now, obviously, the Cougs pass a lot more than run. But, they still surrendered 57 sacks in just 12 games. That 4.75 sacks/game was the worst of any team in college and was a full 1.5 sacks per game worse than UW. The good news is that the Cougs are in the same boat as the Huskies and return a number of experienced players in 2013. In addition, there is new depth that wasn't there last year. If they can just improve to a "slightly below average" sacks surrendered rate, we could really see the production of the Cougar offense jump dramatically.

Settling on a QB is a key issue. Connor Halliday is the man, no matter how much talk there is about Austin Apodaca pushing him. Halliday is a true gunslinger who has a strong arm, but a questionable head on his shoulders. In addition to difficulties in making decisions, Halliday also has troubles with accuracy. He'll be holding the fort down until star recruit, Tyler Bruggman, is ready to begin his reign as the next stud QB at WSU. The good news is that he'll have a very strong cast of receivers to work with. Leach, who values being able to spread the ball around to multiple receivers in his offense, has stockpiled a lot of talent in a short amount of time. Dominique Williams, who terrorized UW in the Apple Cup, Gabe Marks, Kristoff Williams and Brett Bartolone are all capable threats who make up the core of the receiving unit. Look out for incoming transfer Vince Mayle to challenge for significant playing time in the season ahead.

Running Back is not a significant area of focus in a Leach offense. The Cougars were last in the nation in rushing attempts in 2012 with just 252 carries as a team over the course of the season (compare and contrast that to Oregon's 686 attempts). When the Cougs do run the ball, expect Teondray Caldwell - who averaged almost 5 yards a carry last year - to be the primary threat.

In all, the WSU offensive has the baseline talent required to make plays and to score the ball. The big question is whether or not the Offensive Line will allow them the time to make those plays.

2013 Forecast: Washington State

I caught some flack in the Oregon State Gekko File for implying that Washington State will be equal or better this year. What can I say? Guilty as charged. I should clarify: I think that the Cougars have the pieces in place to take a pretty good step forward in 2013 and the opportunity to be as good as the Beavers. The fact that the Cougs play the Beavs in Pullman this year leads me to the conclusion that an otherwise equal conference performance may result in the Cougs getting a tie-breaker advantage over their rivals to the south.

Crazy? Maybe. But, consider my rationale. First, the Cougs - from my vantage point - don't have the same star power on D that the Beavs boast with Michael Doctor and Scott Crichton. However, the Cougs have some important advantages. They are clearly stronger up the middle with their three-man DT rotation, with Monroe and with Bucannon. They also have as much depth and experience in the secondary. Finally, they are not as nearly reliant on incoming JC transfers to play in key roles. Their guys have been in the system longer and are more experienced playing in the Pac 12.

Secondly, the Cougs have much more playmaking potential on the offense - in particular with the receiving corps. While the Cougs QBs don't appear as good on paper, I'm not sure there is all that much difference between Halliday and Beaver QB Sean Mannion at the end of the day. I'm also not so sure that the Beaver 2013 offensive line, which was ok but not great in 2012, is all that separated from what we are likely to see out of the Cougar offensive line in 2013.

Finally, there is the question of the schedule. Both teams play a four home game conference schedule. But the Beavers have a slight advantage in who they miss - they miss UCLA and Arizona while the Cougs miss ASU and Colorado. Still, the home games for WSU are a little more manageable AND they get the Baves in Pullman. Otherwise, the schedule is not that favorable to the Cougs. They start out their first two games on the road against formidable foes @ Auburn and @USC making it very possible that the Cougs will open the season with two losses before getting to a few lighter opponents. The way it plays out for the Cougs makes it very likely that the Apple Cup, which is in Seattle, could be the deciding sixth win opportunity for WSU. Which, of course, amps up the drama around what will be the first Apple Cup in the new Husky Stadium. Regardless, I see this being a 3 to 4 conference win type of season for Mike Leach - one where he pulls off a big upset somewhere along the line (Stanford, maybe?) and challenges for bowl eligibility.